Obituary: John M. Wolf / Driving force behind Jewish Community Center

July 25, 1920 - Dec. 30, 2013

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John M. Wolf, a leading philanthropist for decades in Pittsburgh's Jewish community, who carried on his family's historic support of the Jewish Community Center, died of natural causes Monday in Palm Beach, Fla. The Squirrel Hill native was 93.

There is hardly a JCC building around Pittsburgh that does not have the name Kaufmann on it somewhere. The family that owned the city's once-mighty department store chain donated money in 1909 for one of the first centers to assist local Jewish settlers, and for the last half of the century Mr. Wolf, a Kaufmann descendant, kept building them.

One of his biggest accomplishments was untangling, with a typically calm demeanor, his family's great web of giving.

Mr. Wolf's mother, Martha, was a sister of Edgar Kaufmann Sr., who took control of the stores in the 1910s. Through the early part of the century the wealthy family would fund the Irene Kaufmann Settlement and Emma Farm (now called the Emma Kaufmann Camp), sometimes duplicating services from the Young Men's and Women's Hebrew Association. That had to change, so all three were combined in 1960 into a group called Y-IKC.

Mr. Wolf was a president of the group and tasked with combining three separate leadership boards into one. He did so, and by 1974 the so-called "Ikes" had a new name: the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh.

"John did something that very few people do, and that is stay interested in an organization for their whole life and never lose the commitment," said the JCC's president and CEO, Brian Schreiber.

Mr. Wolf was born in St. Louis to Martha and I.D. Wolf, whose family had been in the cotton business in Arkansas. The elder Mr. Wolf took a job at the department store and moved the family to Pittsburgh, where his son attended Shady Side Academy, went on to Williams College and the Harvard Business School, and came back to the city for his own business career.

He would serve as a project manager at the Dravo Corp, merchandise manager at Kaufmann's and in 1963 start NAPCO Building Products, growing it from a cluster of buildings in the North Side to new plant in Butler County, which he sold in 1998.

Mr. Schreiber, the JCC's president for 15 years, used four adjectives to describe Mr. Wolf: independent, incorruptible, understated and understanding. Jim Wolf, who worked with his father for many years at NAPCO, described his business practices in the same kind of language.

"He believed in treating people with dignity. He was a straight shooter," his son said. "His philosophy was to treat customers, employees and suppliers very well."

Early on in his business career he volunteered for several organizations around the city, but a talk from his mother's other brother, Oliver Kaufmann, turned his focus to what would become the JCC.

"Uncle Oliver talked about taking that responsibility," Mr. Wolf said in a 2011 interview with the center. "I dropped other charitable interests and focused on the JCC. It's been my prime interest."

Over the decades he would help with: purchasing land near Morgantown for the Emma Kaufmann Camp; securing the lead gift from the Henry Kaufmann Foundation to build the JCC South Hills; developing what is now the JCC's James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp in Monroeville; supporting an endowment campaign that led to the Leatrice and John M. Wolf Centerfit facility in Squirrel Hill; and the John and Leatrice Wolf Aquatics Center at the Kaufmann Camp.

Mr. Wolf served vice presidential terms for the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the United Jewish Appeal of Pittsburgh, and in 1996 received the Frank L. Weil award for his contributions to the North American JCC movement.

He is survived by his wife, Lee; daughters Tina Greenberg of Washington, D.C., Wendy Wolf of Haverford, Pa., and Amy Winokur of Squirrel Hill; sons John of Sanibel, Fla., Jim of Fox Chapel, and Bill Gurtin of La Jolla, Calif.; sister Betty Loeb of Birmingham, Ala.; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, with visitation beginning at 9:30 a.m., at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside. Friends and family will be received from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Duquesne Club, Downtown. A Palm Beach visitation will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Wolf home.

Memorial donations may be made to the Lee and John Wolf Fund at the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh, 5738 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh 15217, or the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, 234 McKee Place, Pittsburgh 15213.


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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